Orders, Decorations and Medals (25 September 2008)
Date of Auction: 25th September 2008
Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000
Distinguished Service Medal, G.VI.R. (KX. 114175 R. G. Towell, Engn.), one or two minor edge bruises, good very fine £5000-6000
FootnoteD.S.M. London Gazette 2 October 1942. The original recommendation for an immediate award states:
‘For coolness and devotion to duty under heavy enemy fire both in the engagement with the convoy and on the beach. This is the second raid when he has shown the above qualities’.
Robert George Towell, a member of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, was decorated for the above cited deeds as a crew member of L.C.P. (L.) 1. Moreover, since the recommendation cites an engagement with an enemy convoy, there can be no doubt that Towell’s Landing Craft Personnel (Light) - otherwise known to the Commandos as a “Eureka” - was in fact one of 23 such craft assigned to “Group 5” and “Yellow 1” beach at Berneval and “Yellow 2” beach at Belleville, both just to the east of Dieppe - the whole charged with the disembarkation of No. 3 Commando and some U.S. Rangers. As it transpired, “Group 5” was cut to pieces even before the coast hove into view. John Mellor’s Dieppe Raid takes up the story:
‘Suddenly at 3.50 a.m. Group 5 was nakedly exposed in an artificial daylight created by star shells bursting overhead. About half a mile off the port bow, five motor vessels were approaching; they were escorted by two submarine chasers and a minesweeper. This was the German convoy en route from Boulogne to Dieppe that the British Admiralty had detected by radar. The tiny L.C.Ps were built entirely of wood, which afforded no protection whatsoever against bullets or shrapnel. They were capable of transporting 25 soldiers plus a naval crew of three. Their armament was a solitary Lewis gun, and their top speed was 9 knots. Obviously they had not been designed to fight a sea battle ... ’
Indeed one N.C.O. later voiced the opinion that the L.C.Ps were so flimsy that ‘a rifle bullet would go right through about ten of them’. And Peter Young’s eye-witness account of the incident in Storm From the Sea leaves no doubt as to the ferocious nature of the “firefight” that ensued:
‘At 3.47 a.m., when we were still about an hour’s run from the coast, a starshell went up on our port bow illuminating the group. Immediately a heavy fire was opened on us; 3 and 4-inch ack-ack guns and machine-guns poured a stream of shells and tracer into the flotilla, while further star shells lit up the sky. It was by far the most unplesant moment of my life. Five enemy craft were converging on us. It seemed impossible that our wooden landing-craft could survive more than a few minutes. The tracer seemed to come swooping straight at us. In a few minutes we would be dead and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We crawled upon the face of the ocean, and always nearer to the deadly line of enemy ships. It was certainly very frightening - far more so than any land battle I ever saw before or since.’
But for the extremely gallant actions of a Steam Gun Boat (S.G.B.) crew from Newhaven - from whence “Group 5” had earlier set sail - it is likely a complete massacre would have ensued. But by means of drawing the enemy’s fire, S.G.B 5 afforded the vulnerable L.C.Ps an opportunity to flee, albeit with consequent loss. John Mellor continues:
‘Group 5 had been decimated and scattered. Out of a total of 23 L.C.Ps that had set out of Newhaven, four did not reach the scene of the encounter due to engine trouble and had to return to England. Of the remaining 19, four were badly hit with most of their crews killed or wounded, so that they were forced to return to England. The remaining L.C.Ps split into several groups during the action. Five of them attached themselves to the Gunboat, determined to follow the leader; three others had closed with the flak-ship and were battling the German ships; the remaining seven veered away from the Group and proceeded on their own to the Yellow Beaches ahead.’
Of these seven L.C.Ps, six eventually reached “Yellow 1” beach, and another “Yellow 2” beach, Towell’s L.C.P. (L.) 1 being among the former. Here then a second hair-raising encounter with the enemy, for the latter was fully alerted, defences at the ready - namely machine-gun parties and riflemen on the cliff top. And the first man to go down as the “Eurekas” hit the beach was a Lieutenant-Commander, a rifle bullet hitting him between the eyes. Luckily for those who got ashore, M.L. 346 was lying off “Yellow 1” and lending valuable support, but it was soon apparent that the position was untenable, even though some of the Commandos and Rangers had managed to get inland. Ronald Atkin’s Dieppe 1942 continues the story:
‘At 0700 hours, when the Commando had been ashore for just under two hours, three of the landing craft which had been waiting offshore moved in to Yellow One to answer a white Verey light signal for withdrawal. But when they beached, in a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire with grenades being lobbed at them from the cliffs, they found only the naval communications party waiting to be taken off. After reporting that they had heard nothing from the Commandos, they were taken aboard L.C.P. 157, which promptly stuck on the rocks exposed to the ebbing tide. When another landing craft, L.C.P. 1 [with Towell aboard], went to its assistance it too ran aground on the rocks and steel stakes. The third vessel, L.C.P. 85, went alongside L.C.P. 157 and successfully removed the crew and the beach party without casualties. As 157 was still stuck fast, it was set on fire and abandoned. L.C.P. 1 had meanwhile managed to free itself and retired offshore. Half an hour later at 0730 hours, Lt. Dennis Stephens, in charge of the landing craft flotilla, decided there was no chance of any more survivors and withdrew his remaining boats, leaving L.C.P. 157 ablaze on the beach and L.C.P. 81, holed during the night battle and sinking, and 42, whose crew had been killed during the landing, abandoned ashore.’
A well-deserved D.S.M. to be sure, not least since Towell was clearly ashore for some this period.
In so far as his earlier participation in another operation is concerned, most likely this was the raid launched by No. 6 Commando against the enemy radar station at Hardelot, near Boulogne in the previous June - another occasion on which our landing craft came under heavy fire, one witness concluding it would have been suicide to step off the landing ramp. Be that as it may, it was eventually the Dieppe raid - and the specialist role performed by the likes of Towell - that led to the formation of the Royal Navy Commandos, so in addition to the published sources referred to above, it is worth noting David Lee’s excellent history, Beachhead Assault, which adds a valuable naval perspective to the proliferation of otherwise more general histories of this famous and costly Combined Operations initiative; so, too, vivid accounts of landing craft and their crews under fire.